Game designer crosses over from making Halo games to Zynga’s social games — he’s never going back (interview)

GamesBeat: Yeah, I think that’s true. All these things have happened at once: the arrival and the usefulness of smartphones, and how they can take your time away. Because now you can do work at any time. I can work 24 hours a day now. I can be productive on my smartphone. I’ve got kids going to soccer games a lot. Maybe at halftime I’ve got some time to do something.

Veevaert: Isn’t that funny? I have a 9-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old boy. He took the controller away from me, literally, and became the default core gamer in the house. He’s the guy who plays everything. But even he’s pulling away from console games. He got more interested in the iPad and in playing more quick, accessible games. It’s been this interesting transition. How do I find the level of fulfillment I used to think was great in a console game, where I put in 15 or 20 hours a week? Now it’s just not the same thing anymore.

GamesBeat: They’ve grown up in a way that I didn’t expect. When they have their free time, they will stay on the iPod Touch or the iPad. Or if they turn on a console, they’ll turn on the Wii to play New Super Mario Bros., which they’ve been playing for two years.

Veevaert: Yeah. My son’s been dredging up old stuff like Mario Kart — just fun stuff we like to play. It’s interesting. In my console history, we spent so much time working on graphics and on the 720p resolution, making sure we had proper tiling. The framerate had to be perfect. There couldn’t be any latency loss between anything — just as seamless as possible. There are these interesting stats we came across about how many people finished Halo 3. This is what blew us away. We thought the numbers would be a lot higher, but it was actually around 20 percent. If you flipped it around, it would be like if people went to a movie and 80 percent of them walked out of the film before it was over. But people didn’t feel compelled enough to keep going. It’s a game that sold 12 million units, and yet only 20 percent of those people bothered to finish it. I thought, “God, isn’t that interesting?”

GamesBeat: What about some differences between mobile and PC? Updating is easy on the PC. I may update the software on my phone, but I don’t update my games often. I have too many apps. I don’t update a lot of those.

Veevaert: That’s one of the challenges we have with the content we create. On the web, every time you reload a game like Ruby Blast, you’re getting an update whether you like it or not. The game updates itself. You get new content, a new experience, and new features — new things we want to serve to you. That may not be true on the phone because you may not update the Ruby Blast phone app for a month or two. There’s all this content left sitting out there. It’s one of the interesting challenges that we have in terms of how we connect these games together and how, if people never update their phones, we make sure they still have a great experience.

GamesBeat: Zynga being Zynga, would you ever go make a game for a console where you couldn’t update it? Like, I will make a game for the PlayStation Network, if and only if you let me update it every day. If you didn’t get to update every day, would you still have a Zynga game?

Veevaert: Well, mobile updates on a weekly basis. It would be interesting to see if that cadence works. I wonder what the turnoff rate is on the PlayStation 3, where people just say, “Ah, it’s taking too long.”

GamesBeat: I saw a column by, I think, Christian Svensson on that a while back. I never heard of an answer coming back from any of the console companies….

Veevaert: Sony wanted you to buy the premium membership, so it auto-updates in the night, right? They wanted you to buy that premium membership, and your box would automatically turn on, take the update, and turn off, so you didn’t have to switch on, sit there, and wait for 20 minutes. With Xbox, they’re trying to minimize the customer dissatisfaction. If you turn on your console, you don’t want to have to take an update. For console, the rules are that it can’t look and act like a computer game. When you have a game that’s played on Facebook, you make all these allowances. It could take longer to load; you don’t know how long it’s going to take to load. The Xbox had specific loading directions that developers had to follow. The way that data was streamed in had to not take advantage of the hard drive. It had to run from the disc — all this stuff had to. There’s not really directions for, say, Facebook.

veevaert 2GamesBeat: As a game designer, do you ever want to go back to that world?

Veevaert: No.

GamesBeat: You’re addicted to daily updates now?

Veevaert: I love this stuff. See, here’s what’s exciting. As we make the games, and as we build them, we have access to a lot of great data. But the data now has become so informative that it’s not just driving us as far as what to do, but also informing us on how to make decisions that we’re making creatively. What I have found is that getting a console game done, getting it finished, and shipped to retail…. There was a period of time, sometimes 25 or 28 days, between going gold and the game sitting at retail. That could go faster for an online game, but all you could really see was how fast your game was getting downloaded. What I wasn’t getting was the real-time information on how people were adopting, what features they were enjoying, and why. We can look at it now and see that. After we change one feature, we can see the adoption rate go up or go down — or the way people are sending gifts to each other, and how they’re responding from a social perspective. Like, that’s interesting. We’re prompting people to post more. By getting the realtime information, all that’s done is solidified our relationship with the audience. We can work hand in hand. You have the audience helping to motivate the developer and the developer helping to motivate the audience. There was a real distance between us, the way it worked in the console world. We would do updates and look at to get information, and think, “Oh, that’s interesting.” But it’s only the core of the core that are posting on and telling you what’s going on. Of the 12 million people who bought the game, I had no idea what the vast majority were doing. Now, I love this process. It’s great, and it’s fast. We can get to a prototype really quickly. We can get to benchmark tests quickly as well.

GamesBeat: There are some features of the platform that turn out to be a better way to design games than the way they were designed in the last couple of decades.

Veevaert: Oh, yeah. Now we can focus on pure mechanics. We can get a prototype up and running very quickly, test that mechanic, and look at. Okay, now that we have a great mechanic that we like, how do we start building an experience, adding a narrative, and working with renderers? The sky’s the limit. There doesn’t seem to be a limitation to what we can actually do in the space of Facebook, and now it’s happening on mobile. Technology is improving so fast, and we’re racing with it. You just read about Flash 11.4, right? Suddenly now you can have console games being played right in the Facebook window. That’s incredible.

GamesBeat: So if Mark Pincus gives you 100 people to work on one game for a long time, what would you do?

Veevaert: I don’t know. One hundred people…. I might break that into a few different teams and do several smaller projects, look at what’s gaining heat and momentum, and then reproportion it. I think that’s how it used to be in the old days of consoles. Fable had hundreds of people, and then they had to just move over to Fable II, and then take that whole operation to Fable III. I think now, we can get a lot of what he likes to call “shots on goal.” You can look at things that are working and have the ability to test new ideas and experiment. That’s what’s so fulfilling about this industry right now: the sense of being able to be creative, responsive, and move fast — really moving fast and finding satisfaction in what we’re creating today and what we’re going to get done in one, two, or three weeks. It’s having the team feeling a sense of momentum and connectedness. I just love it. Like I said, if I was working on a game today, I would be reluctant to think about.

Maybe that’s going to take me another two-and-a-half or three years to build? I don’t know what the year’s going to be like in three years. Or, as has happened to me in the past, you start developing a game, and then they say, “Yeah, that would look good on Xbox 1, but we really need you to make this for the 360. Here’s a boatload of tall, noisy Macintoshes. Can you please emulate the 360 and start working on it?” And you don’t have the speed. You just have something kind of like the development environment. I’ll never forget being at Rare when they were trying to get Kameo done. There was this wall of those Quadras — like 80 of them — and in the UK there’s never any air conditioning. You walk in there at three in the afternoon, it’s burning hot, and everyone’s sweating and trying to get this game done because it was all destined for Xbox 1, but it had to be moved to the 360. So I don’t know that I look back and want to go through that again. I’m not sure I would want to try to transition to a new platform. And, guaranteed, if you’re going to develop a game that takes two or three years, you run the risk that that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

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